Can Andre Ward cross over?
OAKLAND -- There is nothing flashy about Andre Ward. Seated on a stool at the Faz Restaurant and Bar on Thursday, casually dressed in a black and grey Jordan Brand hoodie, dark jeans and red and black sneakers, Ward could have slipped into any crowd and gone largely unnoticed. His entourage is his trainer and godfather, Virgil Hunter, and his manager, James Prince, and the only bling on his body is a silver wedding band.
There's nothing flashy about Ward in the ring, either. He's workmanlike, utilizing a stiff jab, crisp combinations and an elusiveness that frustrates opponents looking to land combinations. The unified super middleweight champion, Ward (25-0) fights with Swiss watch precision.
Unfortunately, he is often just as entertaining.
And there, in a nutshell, is the knock on Ward; for all the accolades, for all the hardware -- which includes a 2004 Olympic gold medal and the Super Six tournament trophy -- the reason the 28-year old Ward isn't a pay-per-view star is because, to the average fan, his wins to date just have not been fun to watch.
Thorough? Yes. Ward breezed through the talented field in the Super Six without being seriously threatened.
Technical? Absolutely. Outside of Floyd Mayweather, you are hard pressed to name a fighter more skilled than Ward.
Entertaining? Well ... In a country that has been conditioned to respond only to boorish behavior out of the ring (Mayweather) or a kamikaze style in it (Manny Pacquiao), Ward has yet to gain traction. Before there was Mayweather and Pacquiao there was Oscar De La Hoya, before De La Hoya there was Mike Tyson, before Tyson there was Muhammad Ali. Boxing history is littered with standard bearers boasting compelling qualities in the ring or outside it, with many possessing both.
It's why when the subject of the next superstar is brought up, less accomplished fighters like Saul Alvarez and Adrien Broner are mentioned before Ward.
"People were excited to watch me fight," De La Hoya told SI.com. "There was drama, there was action; it was entertaining. You have to have all the ingredients to become a megastar. Andre Ward is a great fighter, a tremendous champion, a tremendous person. But he has to take chances. He has to engage in combinations where the people are going to cheer and scream. He has to engage more. He is just so talented, he makes his opponents look like amateurs. He needs that perfect opponent who stands right in front of him. Have we seen him against that opponent? I don't think so."
Ward has no intention of becoming more like Mayweather. A committed Christian, that's just not his style. Ward is the rare athlete who sees his career as part of a longer journey. He wants to be a broadcaster; last May he interned at Comcast SportsNet in the Bay Area and has served as an analyst for ESPN, HBO and Showtime. He doesn't want unruly antics outside of the ring to haunt him when his career is over.
"I don't want to send mixed messages," Ward said. "I'm not going to knock anyone else, but it's a shame that people expect you to behave a certain way. I never saw Sugar Ray Leonard be anything but a fierce competitor and a warrior. I never saw Sugar Ray Robinson be anything but that either."
Said Hunter, "The public today demands that young African-Americans act a certain way to have a personality. Look at Broner. I don't know what he does, but when you grow up in the 'hood, you see Broners every single day. We call it shucking and jiving. We see it all the time, but for people that haven't seen it, it's exciting to them. Andre is not going to compromise his character to fit that mold."
Ward isn't going to start standing toe-to-toe with opponents, either. His toughness is unquestionable: Last December, Ward dismantled Carl Froch with a broken left hand. And if a war breaks out in the ring, Ward says, "I'm ready for it," but he isn't going to go looking for one, not when he can break the spirit of most of his opponents by out-maneuvering them. Boxing is an unforgiving sport and Ward, for his family, for his future, wants to avoid the type of punishment that too often leads to long-term problems.
"I've seen the end result of this business," Hunter said. "I know former fighters in their 70's and 80's and let me tell you, each of them has problems as a result of boxing. I've seen a man looking into the air, forgetting where he is, forgetting where the store is. I've seen a man in diapers with no control over his functions. I have seen men who are broke and hungry. When [Ward] walks away, I want him to have all of his faculties intact."
Will those decisions keep Ward from becoming a star? No one knows. HBO is optimistic that the public will gravitate towards Ward, and has thrown its considerable promotional muscle behind him, beginning with Saturday night's fight with Chad Dawson (9:45 p.m., HBO). But privately, network executives have doubts whether Ward will ever become a 500,000 pay-per-view -- the gold standard for PPV success -- attraction.
Ward does believe that as his career continues, his fights will have more exciting finishes. Ward's team has been talking to him about jumping on opportunities when they appear, and Ward says he will look to do just that.
"That's the last piece of my game, becoming a great finisher," Ward said. "You can't teach that. It just comes. Especially against a guy like Chad. He doesn't think it can happen. He just doesn't believe it."
"My time is coming. If I get an opportunity, I'm going to take advantage of it."